Buying into these myths almost cost Kent Sanders his life. Can debunking them save someone you know?
On a warm spring evening in 2003, I considered ending my life.
I was driving home from a long day at grad school. I had been battling clinical depression on and off for several years and was going through a particularly nasty spell. At 28 years old, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t focus, and felt like my head was in a fog most of the time. I was emotionally numb and sleepwalking through life.
As I headed home, my thoughts turned as black as the night surrounding me. I wondered what it would feel like to swerve into oncoming traffic and put an end to my suffering with a great crash of twisted metal and flames. It would be quick way to go.
Would I be missed? Would anyone care? Did it matter anyway?
I pressed on the gas and the car approached 80 mph. My stomach tensed and I began to shake. I felt like I might vomit.
The approaching headlights grew bigger and brighter. I clenched the steering wheel and wondered if I had the guts to do it. A quick jerk of the steering wheel to the left would do the trick.
At the last moment I came to my senses. What was I thinking?
Clearly, I wasn’t thinking, and hadn’t for some time. Depression had its claws around my heart and mind, and I had become a different person. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t feel, and it was a struggle to even get up in the mornings. The anguish in my mind was so intense that the idea of dying sounded better than the mental and emotional anguish I was experiencing.
Depression is bad enough by itself, but in dealing with it my whole adult life I’ve made a number of mistakes that made it much worse. I believed five lies about depression, and in doing so became my own worst enemy.
With over 18 million U.S. adults suffering from depression, there is a pretty good chance that you or someone you know is walking this dark path. I’m sharing my thoughts on this topic to make you aware of these lies that are easy believe. But more importantly, I hope that everyone who needs help will find the courage to take action and begin the journey out of darkness.
Lie #1: I can manage my depression on my own.
As an adult, it’s natural to think you can handle life on your own. Men are especially prone to this line of thinking. You don’t want to show your weaknesses and feel like you have to maintain a tough image. But on the inside, you may be falling apart.
The problem with a “tough guy” mentality is that it works against you when it comes to dealing with depression. You sink further and further inside yourself and it’s impossible to pull yourself out. Depression is like quicksand. You can’t get out by yourself. You need help.
I tried to manage things by myself for way too long, and to be honest I still struggle with that tendency. I’ve always been an independent person, reluctant to ask for help. For a long time, the only person who knew about my depression was my wife Melanie. But as I’ve gotten older and hopefully a little wiser, I have opened up to trusted friends and family members who I knew would be supportive.
If you’re struggling with depression, the first person who should help is your spouse. He or she needs to know about your struggle. You can’t really hide it anyway. If you’re battling depression, your husband or wife has probably noticed something different about you. They are also the person who loves you the most, and are likely the most well-equipped to help you and give you support.
Second, your friends can help. You need friends whom you can lean on when times are tough. As a man, I confess that it’s not always easy to maintain close relationships with guys. But it’s worth the effort.
And third, you need to help of a larger support network. This can include pastors and therapists (which we’ll get to later).
Lie #2: Self-medicating my pain is an effective coping strategy.
We all have our “drug of choice.” It may be alcohol, gambling, too much TV, illicit relationships, or any number of other vices both big and small. When we are suffering, it’s easy to medicate the pain with things that make us feel good in the moment, even if they will destroy us in the long run.
For me, it’s food. When I’m angry, upset, or just plain bored, I’m quick to drown my sorrows in a calorie-packed McDonald’s meal or half a dozen sliders from White Castle. It feels good and makes me forget my problems for a while, but this kind of behavior creates it own set of problems and makes your depression worse.
It’s a vicious cycle where you feel unbearable pain and try to medicate it with your drug of choice. But the “medication” only causes more pain, so you continue the downward spiral, wondering when you’ll hit bottom. Perhaps even hoping for it.
This isn’t a good coping strategy because it’s just that—it’s only coping, not healing. When you’re going through a painful time, it’s hard to see beyond the next day, or even the next hour. You just want to feel better now.
You can’t run from yourself. You must face your pain and ask the hard questions about the behavior that is making things worse. Despite what our culture says, there are no easy solutions. Managing depression effectively is not a neat and tidy process. It’s messy, it’s real, and involves lots of zigzags and curves in the road. Sometimes you have setbacks. I still do. But that’s a normal part of the process.
Lie #3: Depression is only a mental issue and is not related to my physical health.
Depression, by its very nature, means that you lack energy and are not in an “up” state. When you’re depressed, you don’t feel like expending the energy to take care of yourself, which in turn puts you into an even unhealthier state. There’s that vicious cycle again.
In my early 30’s, I lost about 30 lbs. and felt great. But then I stopped working at it, gained all that weight back (and then some), and sunk deeper into a state of inaction and lethargy. For most of my 30’s I didn’t pay much attention to my weight (other than watching it gradually increase). I completely ignored the fact that exercise could be a big help to me.
But since I turned 40, I’ve been exercising more and paying attention to my health. I can honestly say that aside from medication, exercise helps alleviate the symptoms of depression. Nothing else even comes close.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do combat depression. It has an amazing number of benefits, including stress reduction, better sleep, and improved self-esteem. This one choice alone can have an overwhelmingly positive affect on your life.
Lie #4: I won’t benefit from professional help.
There are many reasons people avoid counselors: it takes time, it often costs money, and there is sometimes judgment associated with going to counseling. But there’s one major reason to do so: a counselor can help give you insights and strategies that can radically help in recovery.
I’m not ashamed to tell you that I saw a counselor for a time in my mid-30’s. I felt lost with no direction in life, like I was wandering in a vast emotional wilderness. The counselor didn’t give me magic pill, but he helped me process what was going on in my life, which was very helpful.
Doctors are also an indispensable resource, not only because they can prescribe appropriate medication, but also because they are trained to assess your level of depression and whether medication is needed in the first place. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that medication saved my life. It took time and patience to find a medication that worked really well for me, but it was worth the effort.
Seeing a doctor and/or counselor is an investment of time and money, but I will be the first to say that these professionals have been indispensable in helping me manage the symptoms of depression.
Lie #5: Depression is a weakness I must hide at all costs.
In 2004 I accepted a new job and we moved to St. Louis. We were also having a baby. For some strange reason I decided to stop taking my depression medication. I decided I should “man up” since I was getting ready to turn 30. This was a terrible decision as I went through a period of withdrawal and my depression came back with a vengeance.
I mistakenly believed that my depression meant I was deficient in some way. If I continued taking medication, didn’t that mean I was weak and inadequate?
Since then I’ve come to understand that depression is a medical condition, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. There is no social stigma attached to those conditions, so why should we feel any differently about depression?
Over the last few years I have learned to manage my depression pretty effectively. I still have occasional days when it gets the best of me, but it doesn’t have nearly the grip on my life it once did
Life is hard enough as it is. When you add battling depression into the mix, it gets infinitely tougher. If you believe one or more of these five lies, it will pull you down even further. If you’re struggling with depression, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help. Make the choice today to get healthier not only for yourself, but for those you love.
Disclaimer: This is my obligatory (but necessary) statement that I’m not a doctor or counselor, and nothing in this post should be construed as medical or otherwise professional advice. I’m just a regular guy sharing his experience in hopes that it will lead those who are struggling to seek help.
This article first appeared on KentSanders.net.